Gentle Parenting and Setting Limits

A couple of weeks ago my firstborn child celebrated her 10th birthday. You’d think after ten years of parenting I’d have this gig down pat. But no, I still go through phases where I feel like I’m failing as a parent and screwing up my kids for life. It doesn’t help that my kids have disabilities that are largely invisible (until you’ve spent some time with them), which renders me the perfect target for criticism.

It has been almost a year since Son got diagnosed as high-functioning autistic and began working with a great team of therapists (Daughter is being assessed next month). I’m learning a lot from these people, and their feedback has been wonderful. However, it has also precipitated a period of doubting myself as a parent. I’ve realized that I need to set more limits, be more structured, and have more rules in place for how we do things. This is really not my style.

I’ve always rebelled against structure, limits, routines, rigidity and rules. As a young child I bristled when anybody tried to control me, and as a teenager it almost cost me my relationship with my mother. As an adult I have always been happiest in an independent and unstructured environment and I have a difficult time imposing structure and routine in my daily stay-at-home life. As a parent I embraced with joy the philosophies that dispensed with such trappings. Honestly, I have never understood the expression “kids need limits” because that certainly didn’t feel true for me. Instead, I became drawn to those practices that placed more emphasis on consensual living.

But, at times, it didn’t seem to be working the way it was supposed to. So, reluctantly, I would begin to introduce rules and restrictions but that only led to battles and meltdowns that left me and the kids miserable. People said I just had to “stay the course” and eventually the kids would give in. But that didn’t happen and eventually I would just quit because it was all getting way too traumatic for everybody. Of course, I had no idea back then that I was dealing with two kids on the spectrum. It’s a testament to the “hell hath no fury” power of an autistic child in full meltdown that I actually found it easier to make separate meals for everybody, lay in bed with them until they fell asleep (which would sometimes take hours), and clean up their messes than to face any of those battles head-on. Some of my friends and family thought I was a pushover. I got accused of “coddling” my children. When I said I was genuinely happier this way they didn’t believe me. They didn’t understand what the alternative looked like. Being judged and misunderstood seems to be part of the package when it comes to parenting kids on the spectrum.

Fast-forward to this past year and I’m getting told over and over again by various therapists that Son needs me to set limits and push him beyond his comfort zone. However, I’m also being told that this must be done with the utmost care. With autistic kids, as I’ve been warned by our OT, it is crucial to create changes in very small baby steps. They cannot handle being pushed too far and/or too fast. Make that mistake and you’re starting all over again, only this time it will be twice as hard and take three times as long to get back to where you were. I now understand why limits and rules failed me in the past: I’d tried to impose too much, too soon. Not for neurotypical kids, perhaps, but definitely for my kids. Their anxiety would go through the roof and my mothering instinct knew that this was not good for them or their relationship with me.

So now I’m back to considering imposing more limits and structure, albeit doing so in a slower and steadier manner. Nevertheless, the realization that I needed to do this, that I *could* do this, caused me to rethink my attitudes towards parenting. The idea that my kids could actually sit down at a table to eat without disrupting the entire meal, that they could handle being around smells and flavours that repulsed them, that they could help with setting the table and cleaning up afterwards…well, those were powerful motivators. I had given up on those things because my past attempts, doing it the way everybody had said to do it, had failed miserably. Now I was being given a way to do it that promised success, and without raising my kids’ anxiety to potentially-damaging levels.

I actually worried for a while there that I would have to give up on Gentle Parenting and what that had come to mean to me. But I was wrong. I don’t have to give up on my values and my beliefs. It turns out that setting and enforcing limits is not inconsistent with this way of parenting. I guess I’d sort of lost sight of that over the years, because the more my kids reacted badly to my failed attempts at limit-setting the more I looked towards parenting styles that moved beyond limits. I’ve had to accept the fact that my kids are not mentally equipped to deal with that. I know there are children out there who can: I’ve met them. I’ve seen kids thrive and blossom and grow in that environment, but I’ve had to accept that my kids need something different.

And so it was that I was very happy to discover this website. Reading through it was like a refresher course in Gentle Parenting (aka: Positive Parenting). It reminded me that it’s possible to make rules and have routines and set limits and yet still be gentle and respectful of my children. By taking these principles and tweaking them for my kids’ unique challenges, I believe I can find my way to a happier coexistence with my kids. I’ll write more in future posts on the specific goals I’m setting, and my plans for getting us there. For now, I’m just happy that I can move forward with my parenting without having to be untrue to those values and principles that form the core of who I am as a mother.




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